In 1987 I took a summer job in a medical supplies distribution warehouse. My responsibility was mainly “picking.” I assembled and prepared daily orders for delivery to in-home patients. I remember arriving for the first day on the job feeling uneasy in a strange environment — I’d never been in a warehouse before. After filling out paperwork that I didn’t really understand, I trailed the warehouse manager around while he quickly ran me through the routine. He used a lot of jargon, gave me no chance to ask questions, and assured me the easiest way to figure things out would be to get busy. I was terrified every day thereafter that I’d pick the wrong sized syringe or that I’d not properly clean an IV pump. But I was supposed to figure things out by doing, or so I was told. By the time my 10 weeks ended, I’d never felt even a little bit comfortable or confident at that job.
Thirty years later, things are quite different. Today we take the onboarding experience seriously. Talent acquisition is an expensive proposition, and bringing new team members on effectively has an impact on retention and performance. A good many workplaces still take the old “just-get-busy” approach, but for those who believe in effective onboarding it’s time to challenge anew what exactly “effective” looks like.
Is onboarding about indoctrination or socialization? The purpose of onboarding is to socialize a new team member with the work environment in order to unleash their fullest potential in service of collective goals. If you search online for “the purpose of onboarding,” one of the top definitions you’ll see is “to develop within newly hired or transferred employees the necessary skills, knowledge, and behaviors to become effective contributors to an organization.” Rather than debate definitions in the abstract, however, let’s consider specific mainstream onboarding practices to reconsider whether the disruption has gone far enough.
A Pre-Planned Planned Schedule
I can remember so many conversations with HR colleagues diligently arranging detailed schedules for the first week or more of a new colleague’s tenure. We wanted to be meticulous in ensuring they had all the information they needed. In many cases we’d become very stressed when the schedule needed to be rearranged and spend lots of time going back and forth to recreate a new schedule.
What if rather than choreograph all of these meetings we provide a new colleague with guidance on key resources and relationships? We could support them to arrange meetings in the sequence and pace that made sense to them.
Early Goals and Objectives
From the very beginning, enable your new colleague to contribute. But in most cases they can start right in on tasks without necessarily having to establish concrete performance goals and objectives. Some individuals may indeed prefer to quickly established clear goals, but others may be more at ease — and ultimately more productive — getting acclimated a bit before setting specific targets.
What if rather than prescribe that supervisors sit and establish goals quickly, we inquire what kind of approach would be most motivating for the new colleague? This is certainly not an argument against setting performance expectations. But is there a rush?
The Buddy System
There was a time when I was a huge proponent of the “buddy system.” I myself benefitted from the buddy system practice in an organization that featured it as a key component of its onboarding. Today, however, my perspective has shifted a bit. What strikes me is how we can make a judgment about who could best serve a new colleague in this buddy role. In fact, I can imagine how this well-intentioned act of social engineering could also backfire.
What if we encourage a new hire to identify someone they would like to request serve in this capacity? Their choice may not be obvious to us, but it will be more comfortable, appropriate, and effective for them.
A Welcome Lunch
Several organizations I’ve collaborated with in recent years have gone to great lengths to help new colleagues feel welcome. Welcome lunches, either at a local restaurant or in a meeting space on site, are a popular ritual of the onboarding experience. What could be wrong with that? Not everyone is equally comfortable being in the spotlight, and this can be especially awkward for some before they’ve formed their own social bonds.
What if we offered our new colleagues some options regarding how we may help make them feel most welcome? Some may enjoy a team lunch. Others could prefer an outing with just a couple of colleagues. Still others may have ideas we hadn’t ever considered. Let’s ask.
Like my memories of laboring over onboarding schedules, I fondly recall laboring over the accuracy of our organogram. We believed it so important to be able to lay out the corporate structure in these neat boxes and lines for our new colleagues. We’d place this among the very first pages in our orientation materials, and yet I can’t ever recall seeing anyone light up when receiving an org chart!
What if we not worry about documenting our company structure for a new colleague and instead ask them to map it as they understand it based on their own conversations? It’d be interesting to see how they depict the organizational structure based on what they hear.
Description of Core Values
Along with the organogram is the statement of corporate values — another critical piece of the welcome package, right? We may even have referred to the values during the recruitment process as one way to ensure we found a good “fit.” So during the onboarding we likewise find ways to ensure that our newest team members understand and adhere to these enshrined behaviors and principles.
What if we hold off on this bit of indoctrination and ask the new colleague to share with us what they observe the corporate values appear to be after several weeks on the job? (Just ask them to use the honor system and not peek at the website.) You can rest assured that even if you touched on values during the recruiting process they’ve forgotten most of it. You just may be surprised by the feedback you receive. And you’ll have time a little later to communicate the official version.
Beneath each of these examples lies the presumption that onboarding is about socialization rather than indoctrination, enabling a new colleague to be encouraged to bring their fullest potential to work. But this proposition needn’t conflict with practical necessities such as reviewing benefits, granting access and training on operating systems, and providing clear instruction on immediate tasks. By all means attend to the basics, but at the same time challenge yourselves by asking what are those basics, really? Which aspects of your overall onboarding program truly must be prescribed and standardized, and which aspects could be shaped by each individual’s needs and preferences so that they integrate effectively?
Back in 1987 I didn’t need an elaborate onboarding experience to succeed at my summer job. But if they and only asked me about what I needed to ease into the flow … that would’ve been really appreciated and motivating!